Bikini Atoll in the Pacific

Wednesday, 9 December 2020 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, UNESCO World Heritage
Reading Time:  13 minutes

Entrance sign to the island © Ron Van Oers/cc-by-sa-3.0-igo

Entrance sign to the island © Ron Van Oers/cc-by-sa-3.0-igo

Bikini Atoll, sometimes known as Eschscholtz Atoll between the 1800s and 1946, is a coral reef in the Marshall Islands consisting of 23 islands surrounding a 229.4-square-mile (594.1 km²) central lagoon. After the Second World War, the atoll’s inhabitants were relocated in 1946, after which the islands and lagoon were the site of 23 nuclear tests by the United States until 1958. The atoll is at the northern end of the Ralik Chain, approximately 530 miles (850 km) northwest of the capital Majuro. Three families were resettled on Bikini island in 1970, totaling about 100 residents. But scientists found dangerously high levels of strontium-90 in well water in May 1977, and the residents were carrying abnormally high concentrations of cesium-137 in their bodies. They were evacuated in 1980. The atoll is occasionally visited today by divers and a few scientists, and is occupied by a handful of caretakers.

Bikini islanders’ traditional lifestyle was based on cultivating plants and eating shellfish and fish. They were skilled boat-builders and navigators, sailing the two-hulled proa to and from islets around Bikini and other atolls in the Marshall Islands. They were relatively isolated and had developed a society bound by extended family association and tradition. Every lagoon was led by a king and queen, with a following of chieftains and chief women who constituted a ruling caste. Japan occupied the islands starting in 1914. The islanders worked the copra plantations under the watchful eye of the Japanese, who took a portion of the sales. Chiefs could retain as much as $20,000 per year, and the remainder was distributed to the workers. The Marshall islanders took pride in extending hospitality to one another, even distant relatives (Marshallese culture).

The United States detonated 23 nuclear devices between 1946 and 1958 at seven test sites on the reef, inside the atoll, in the air, and underwater. They had a combined fission yield of 42.2 Mt. The testing began with the Operation Crossroads series in July 1946. The residents initially accepted resettlement voluntarily to Rongerik Atoll, believing that they would be able to return home within a short time. However, Rongerik could not produce enough food, and the islanders starved. They could not return home, so they were relocated to Kwajalein Atoll for six months before choosing to live on Kili Island, a small island one-sixth the size of their home island. Some were able to return to Bikini Island in 1970; however, further testing revealed dangerous levels of strontium-90. The United States government established several trust funds which as of 2013 covered medical treatment and other costs and paid about $550 annually to each individual.

The islanders cultivated native foods including coconut, pandanus, papaya, banana, arrowroot, taro, limes, breadfruit, and pumpkin. A wide variety of other trees and plants are also present on the islands. The islanders were skilled fishermen. They used fishing line made from coconut husk and hooks from sharpened sea shells. They used more than 25 methods of fishing. The islanders raised ducks, pigs, and chickens for food and kept dogs and cats as pets. Animal life in the atoll was severely affected by the atomic bomb testing. Existing land species include small lizards, hermit crabs, and coconut crabs. The islands are frequented by a wide variety of birds. To allow vessels with a larger draft to enter the lagoon and to prepare for the atomic bomb testing, the United States used explosives to cut a channel through the reef and to blow up large coral heads in the lagoon. The underwater nuclear explosions carved large holes in the bottom of the lagoon that were partially refilled by blast debris. The explosions distributed vast amounts of irradiated, pulverized coral and mud across wide expanses of the lagoon and surrounding islands. As of 2008, the atoll had recovered nearly 65% of the biodiversity that existed prior to radioactive contamination, but 28 species of coral appear to be locally extinct.

Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site © Ron Van Oers/cc-by-sa-3.0-igo 'Baker' explosion, part of Operation Crossroads © United States Department of Defense - Library of Congress Entrance sign to the island © Ron Van Oers/cc-by-sa-3.0-igo © Ron Van Oers/cc-by-sa-3.0-igo View of the coast © Ron Van Oers/cc-by-sa-3.0-igo Map of the Marshall Islands, including Bikini Atoll © Holger Behr
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'Baker' explosion, part of Operation Crossroads © United States Department of Defense - Library of Congress
In 1998 an IAEA advisory group, formed in response to a request by the Government of the Marshall Islands for an independent international review of the radiological conditions at Bikini Atoll, recommended that Bikini Island should not be permanently resettled under the present radiological conditions. The potential to make the island habitable has substantially improved since then. A 2012 assessment from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that cesium-137 levels are dropping considerably faster than anyone expected. Terry Hamilton, scientific director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Marshall Islands Dose Assessment and Radioecology Program, reported that “Conditions have really changed on Bikini. They are improving at an accelerated rate. By using the combined option of removing soil and adding potassium, we can get very close to the 15 millirem standard. That has been true for roughly the past 10 years. So now is the time when the Bikinians, if they desired, could go back.” As of 2013, about 4,880 Bikini people live on Kili and other Marshall Islands, and some have emigrated to the United States. Bikini Island is currently visited by a few scientists and inhabited by 4–6 caretakers. The islanders want the top soil removed, but lack the necessary funding. The opportunity for some Bikini islanders to potentially relocate back to their home island creates a dilemma. While the island may be habitable in the near term, virtually all of the islanders alive today have never lived there. Most of the younger generation have never visited. As of 2013, unemployment in the Marshall Islands was at about 40 percent. The population is growing at a four-percent growth rate, so increasing numbers are taking advantage of terms in the Marshall Islands’ Compact of Free Association that allow them to obtain jobs in the United States. After the islanders were relocated in 1946, while the Bikini islanders were experiencing starvation on Rongerik Atoll, Lore Kessibuki wrote an anthem for the island:

No longer can I stay, it’s true
No longer can I live in peace and harmony
No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow
Because of my island and the life I once knew there
The thought is overwhelming
Rendering me helpless and in great despair.

Because the site bears direct tangible evidence of the nuclear tests conducted there amid the paradoxical tropical location, UNESCO determined that the atoll symbolizes the dawn of the nuclear age and named it a World Heritage Site on 3 August 2010.

Bikini Atoll has conserved direct tangible evidence … conveying the power of … nuclear tests, i.e. the sunken ships sent to the bottom of the lagoon by the tests in 1946 and the gigantic Bravo crater. Equivalent to 7,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, the tests had major consequences on the geology and natural environment of Bikini Atoll and on the health of those who were exposed to radiation. Through its history, the atoll symbolises the dawn of the nuclear age, despite its paradoxical image of peace and of earthly paradise.

Bikini Atoll is open to visitors aboard vessels that are completely self-sufficient if they obtain prior approval. They must also pay for a diver and two local government council representatives to accompany them. The local representation is required to verify that visitors don’t remove artifacts from the wrecks in the lagoon. In June 1996, the Bikini Council authorized diving operations as a means to generate income for Bikini islanders currently and upon their eventual return. The Bikini Council hired dive guide Edward Maddison who had lived on Bikini Island since 1985 and Fabio Amaral, a Brazilian citizen at the time, as head divemaster and resort manager. The tours are limited to fewer than a dozen experienced divers a week, cost more than US$5,000, and include detailed histories of the nuclear tests. The operation brought in more than $500,000 during the season from May to October during 2001. To accommodate the dive program and anglers, the Bikini Council built new air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms and showers. They included verandas overlooking the lagoon. There was a dining facility that served American-style meals. The head chef Mios Maddison also prepared Marshallese dishes featuring fresh seafood. Only 12 visitors were hosted at one time. Because of the lingering contamination, all fruits and vegetables used for the Bikini Atoll dive and sport fishing operation were imported. In September 2007, the last of Air Marshall Islands‘ commuter aircraft ceased operations when spare parts could not be located and the aircraft were no longer airworthy. A half dozen divers and a journalist were stranded for a week on Bikini Island. The Bikini islanders suspended land-based dive operations beginning in August 2008. In October 2010, a live-aboard, self-contained vessel successfully conducted dive operations. In 2011, the local government licensed the live-aboard operator as the sole provider of dive expeditions on the nuclear ghost fleet at Bikini Atoll. The dive season runs from May through October. Visitors are still able to land on the island for brief stays. In early 2017, Master Liveaboards announced they would add Bikini Atoll to their list of destinations for technical divers using their vessel Truk Master with trips to the site commencing in May 2018. Because the lagoon has remained undisturbed for so long, it contains a larger amount of sea life than usual, including sharks, which increases divers’ interest in the area. Visibility depth is over 100 feet (30 m). The lagoon is immensely popular with divers and is regarded as among the top 10 diving locations in the world. As of 2016, the dive program was managed by Indie Traders. Dive visitors receive a history lesson along with the dive experience, including movies and complete briefings about each of the ships, their respective histories, and a tour of the island and the atoll. Divers are able to visit the USS Saratoga. As of 2016, Air Marshall Islands operates one Bombardier Dash 8 Q100 aircraft and one 19-seat Dornier Do 228. Only vessels that are fully self-contained who make prior arrangements can currently visit the atoll. Bikini Island authorities opened sport fishing to visitors along with diving. Although the atomic blasts obliterated three islands and contaminated much of the atoll, after 50 years the coral reefs have largely recovered. The reefs attract reef fish and their predators: 30 pounds (14 kg) dogtooth tuna, 20 pounds (9.1 kg) barracuda, and giant trevally as big as 50 pounds (23 kg). Given the long-term absence of humans, the Bikini lagoon offers sportsmen one of the most pristine fishing environments in the world.

Read more on Welcome to Bikini Atoll, The Guardian, 15 July 2017: ‘Quite odd’: coral and fish thrive on Bikini Atoll 70 years after nuclear tests, Wikipedia Operation Crossroads and Wikipedia Bikini Atoll (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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